I took it in when I first called to view,
through-traffic slushing beneath a railbridge,
peelong shopfronts, lustreless shut pubs,
a yard full of scrapped trolleybuses, dead
antennae aimless under a grey sky,
and the street I sought off-left, cracked pavement,
gardens all weeds, the odd house boarded up.
After knocking, I turned in the pause:
across the road an open window framed
a headscarved woman moving, dusting, singing.
The massive pink door shuddered to let me in.
And I was led up past landing kitchenettes,
and round and up to a slope-roofed room, low bed,
bed-table, tilting wardrobe, cheap bowl fire.
‘That's it, and there’s the meter.’ Then,
‘You’re young,’ he added, ‘where is your home?’
‘Home?’' I replied, ‘Home’s where I find myself.’
And so it was. Perhaps I have never left.
Coming round different corners since
I am caught surprised by a different door, red, blue,
wrong to my expectation of that blistering pink one,
and the strange accents of a different now.
My silences reassume the network
of those streets, whatever noise traffic makes
modulates to their noise; imagination
attunes to that cramped box. Which first
wrung notes of what it had for song from it;
where I settled for what calling found.
from Railway Poems
Even under the shed there's something outdoors
about the work. One side stands open
to stars and wind. You pause on your barrow to watch
dawn come up, or a shower across the city.
You’re never bricked in. On slack shifts in summer
men wander off along overgrown sidings, embankments,
for a sun and a glance through the Mirror: a couple
have planted a vegetable garden back of Humberstone Coal Wharf.
Grass invades. Dustiest corners are settled
with unauthorised flowers. The Grain Shed sparrows
strut plundering leaking sacks, great rats
buck-jump away from right under your feet.
On a fine day wagons trundle in hung with glittering
waterdrops: somewhere rain is falling.
Even one bleak night, surrounded
by foggy blackness, and cartons, crates,
rolled netting stacked up on the shed platform,
hard graft, something broke in when old Gumble found
in the straw that wadded a cased-up carboy of acid
a sleepy butterfly. It crawled
on to hs palm. ‘Beautiful little bugger,
in’t it?’ It fluttered in his sour beer breath.
‘Look at this, Jacko. Red admiral.’ Wherever
he carried it, cupped precious in his hands,
men stopped, gathering under wan lights:
blue overalls, stubbled faces focused on
a butterfly, straw strewn upon the concrete,
and birds starting racketing for the new day in the girders.
It is the hands
live on. I watch
wonderingly out of
the skull's shell
their slow underwater
suds through a shirt,
their firm grasp
to puncture a can
of coffee releasing
the fresh aroma.
Peeling an orange
or in a mirror
knotting my tie
they flex intricately
like animate things.
How peacably now
they rest, lightweight
on knees, blue-veined,
dusted with hair,
to construct the spare
scaffolding of deed
They dress me to meet it;
record on this page
From land's extremitly the island
entices, delectable with shadow.
The landing-place is clefted between rock,
and a green road loops up
around what have been dwellings, roofless,
foundering into blown grass set
with flower-constellations I have no name for.
Elemental enough: some sheep, the sea
they rode in curraghs casting nets;
the long winters of inbred storytelling
in the Irish, the young drifting to mainland
jobs and marriages. Till all were taken off.
And if this twenty-year dereliction harboured
ghosts, there'd be nothing to be said
except agreement how across the water
always looks more alluring.
The boat collects us. From the stern
I see, before a shower cuts off, the broken
walls still marking each frail holding,
a longer stay than mine, and not romantic.
A single garden of roses, thickly wrought
red roses hoarding sun in the silence
of a low blind street end-on to a warehouse wall,
scheduled for clearance.
broken panes, the other small plots abandaoned
to weeds, dropped tiles, gaped blanlk to what
had determined this immaculate aftermath.
Red blooms. Soft-burning still in vivid answer.
The weather holds. From Strangford Lough to Swilly
soft arms of coast cradle still water.
Sunning before our shore’s edge cottage we
‘enjoy it while it lasts’, watch floated fronds
of seaweed among the rocks slightly
lifting with a glitter like broken glass.
And the radio talks into blue day -
to campions, sea-pinks, primroses run wild
over springy turf - of another sectarian killing,
a club blown up, several injured.
The tiny insistent voice is a black mote
in the mind, troubling the horizon
within which our concerns are local as
the cliff-path hesitating its few miles
to Portrush. We have our jokes, lovemaking,
morning-squabbles; John and Mary are at
each others’ throats in phone-kiosks, kitchens;
another friend founders in private madness;
and ‘Fuck off to Limavady’ as the man said
last night to his girl, means over the edge
of the little world. But later ourselves beyond
Limavady, we find in Derry
the truce keeps up, with festive bunting and
the soldiers relaxed and eating ice-cream.
We drink campari in sweet evening air
where mountains pour down to the lough-side;
seething at Reggie, you shred a pound note with your teeth.
And this morning sit writing it up in your journal
here on the city wall, where ten days back
that policeman was shot from no personal anger.
All peace is imperfect. At last Belfast: the pub
where we talk poetry is pocked from old bombings -
nothing's worth fixing these days. In the gents’
a washbasin grimed and fractured, filled with glass,
taps issuing only a parched gush of air.
Outside, still sunshine. Everyone waits for the break.
Pictures from Donegal
for Vic Willi
Through Rathmelton, then
six miles of turns and lanes,
‘Ask for Greer’s cottage’
- in the heart of silence
and greenery dripping fuchsia.
We’d sit outside all day
sunburning, the chessboard
aligned so you could manage
all moves but knight-leaps,
and talked, of everything -
your transatlantic voice
a buzz-saw in the pure air -
but most, of what you’d come
here to, sick Ireland
and its maddest flourishes:
‘Some Provos dressed as nuns
robbed a Coleraine bank,
were lifted drinking at Garvagh...’
‘I used to have,’ you said,
‘a laugh like yours before
my chest-muscles went.’
Vic, I envy your
clear sight: from your wheelchair
gazing across the Swilly
to pick out where light gleamed
on Inishowen far
fields cut since yesterday.
I had learned to empty
your drainage-bag, hook
the cup to your withering hand,
had come, having the time,
to be ‘of use’, and surely
wasn’t much. We loafed
till the girls drove back from Derry.
- Which you’d seen also, bombed
to bits, the soldiers,
and an old dear yammering
‘When yous go back, just tell them
we're not all monsters.’
Then every evening out
around mountains and valleys
firing your camera at
glittering heather, turfstacks,
sunset over more bays
than you’d ever remember
- remember the seals off Fanad,
with Donegal flinging
wild arms to the Atlantic?
It needs a place far gone
as this for me to realise
our science-fiction age:
‘Yes, probably the bomb
will drop,’ I think
for the first time in years,
while you are staring at
intricate drystone walls
netting tiny holdings
on an empty headland. Yes,
people have starved here,
been driven away;
this cottage, where returning
to fumble with tilley-lamps
and well-water is for us
a week going primitive,
for two hundred years
cocooned remote lives
that never saw towns,
our electric civilisation
a car-ride away
- yet were near as first light
woke me. You too perhaps
(as well as the tang of Guinness
and ‘Is it an Anglo-Canadian
consortium yous are,
these your secretaries from Derry?’)
have taken back what camera
and eyesight are blank to:
beneath the flowered wallpaper
old scuffmarks, burns, on odour
outlasting us and all
on our chirruping radio.
Ledged high in glass and steel the Committee Room:
'So why do you want to be...?' That is, to join us.
From ten stock replies, you select for your mood,
almost say, 'Choose a number, try for the jackpot,'
while your gaze slides out to that dying orange cloud-rent.
Or they are 'unsure of the lines of your career,'
'Of course, it's a battlefield here,' or 'The crucial art
is delegation' - and can you think of one reason
why anyone's right for this except (which you are)
the sort of woman who on principle would refuse it?
Often, they like you, you seem 'creative',
though 'here we've developed a team philosophy.'
You are interviewed longer than anyone else, and given
a second tea; but the post is given
to that dud in a deep-pile suit, or the mouse from Garstang.
Long after the cleaners have crunched up the debris, leaving
these rooms in a mist of purifying aerosol,
in the icy misshapen hours when you cannot sleep,
or delegate not sleeping, and facing the final
questions finds no reason for anything ever,
you take all night to the high lines of the moors;
there are forests with silence folded under their leaves;
and every motorway-mile phones on posts skid past
your hurtling box, each Why do you want to be?
foundering in your wake's black wastes unfurling.
Two passages from Out for the Elements
Starry tonight, and repetitious
sea harassing the empty strand,
as when it first cast adventitious
staggering life upon the land;
through sleights of wondrous generation
since to attain a consummation
in filaments of light I see
stacked on the Prom: humanity
with all its complex apparatus,
deep-freezers, televisions, cars,
banks, supermarkets, churches, bars,
whows what once kindled to create us
subtilised now to a weird grace-
note shimmering on time and space.
The sand beneath my feet caressing
negligently each emptied shell,
dropped cans and condoms, spreads expressing
only conclusive flatness. Well
clear of its first-and-last mnemonic
and breakers issuing their sonic
premonitions, mankind who feigns
whole worlds dreamed to exalted planes,
within those intricate wired boxes
saying things like ‘omputer sales’
‘topspin forehand’, ‘don’t tell tales’,
‘I’m not contracepting’ foxes
comprehension with monkey-tricks:
arts, avocations, politics.
Marvellous are the anthills, skuas,
acacias, zebras, whales, yet none
gone so tortuously askew as
man so inventively has done
from first imperatives. How did it
come about? How could nature bid it
we should attain such livings as
insurance, market research, and jazz,
mining for coal, or crawling under
purring metal contraptions, or
inspecting wickets, or the law?
It all bends the mind, and no wonder
that some are put away, convinced
they’re parrots or the Queen, brains minced.
Small babies born to suck, laugh, cry on
their mothers’ breasts, pure animal,
grow to learn how to tie a tie on,
and say ‘Don’t get emotional,’
budgeting life away, its flicker
never possessed streams ever quicker:
first toy, first fuck, child, grandchild, stroke,
then that’s your lot. I could invoke
anthologies of the grisly ending,
mad, murdered, maimed, mocked, crucified
by surgical art. Most just subside
slowly though into what’s past mending,
shopping around until they’re gone,
unmissed where fleets of prams roll on.
Take that teashop in South Norwood
where I grew up, named The Horst
Café: every year more and more would
alter it with paint to read Worst
Café, and the man and his wife who
owned the place change it back, a life you
could hardly envy, soldiered through
repainting H on W,
Such can’t be meant. Other dimensions
to their existences? No doubt.
But none improved what they slopped out
as tea. They’ve gone now, on their pensions
somewhere, paintbrush at last hung up,
crouched to the dregs of their last cup.
Which brings me to myself, revolving
such matters on a starlit beach
on Ireland’s northern rim, and solving
none of my problems as I reach
perhaps my own half-way, at forty.
Pure romanticism, each sortie
risking its leap before the look
jells, has run into Life’s left-hook
absurdly often. Once more home is
dwindled to little more than these
shoes I stand here in, where the sea’s
belling as wind gets up, and foam is
whitening now to topple sheer.
There’s plenty of the void round here.
‘The boys from Killybegs come rolling
nome’ resounds in this Moss Side pub;
though where the Irish here are bowling
off to is some Manchester club,
the Top Cat, Ardri, Ritz, or Kelly’s,
or a Chinese to fill their bellies.
Or just back home: scarred Lingbeck flats,
Whalley Range, Chorlton Road. Well, that’s
my lot again; I drain the whiskey
bought to help make my last pint last,
talking to Pat Quinn of his past
in Derry. Philomena's frisky,
whooping and boasting how she’d been
a ’forties Sligo beauty queen.
Among the hubbub, a girl weeping
near me. ‘So what’s up, love?’ I say.
‘Nothing.’ But then her tale comes seeping
out: ‘My sister. It’s my big day,
my twenty-first, that she’s decided
to get engaged on. Dad here’s sided
with her. I’ll let them organise
it. Won't go near it.’ And she dries
her eyes with nicotine-stained fingers.
‘One of my kids is five next day.’ ‘You've
children?’ ‘I’ve four.’ ‘Time up, friends, move,’
the landlord interrupts. She lingers:
‘My husband’s off serving the Queen
two years.’ ‘The nick?’ ‘That's what I mean.’
‘We’re five, my kids and me. There’s Maire
who I was talking of, she’s great.
Sean died at three months, he’ll be four, a
beautiful son. Martine and Kate
I lost at fifteen days. September
they’re two, the twins. Oh, I remember
all their birthdays, to me they stay
alive and growing every day.’
Cellophane in the ashtray crackles
as she stubs her cigarette, flares
brilliant as magnesium. There’s
life answering academic jackals
who, reading Wordsworth, have demurred
at ‘We Are Seven’ as absurd.
Two poems from A Father's Tale
'DADDY MEND IT'
Summer sealed the garden as you played,
gentle with petals, smiled at the black cat
lapping milk you poured. Green habitat
intact against whatever edge of shade.
One fallen leaf on the lawn’s grass. You ran
and tried to put it back on its low bough;
then said ‘Daddy mend it’, knowing how
I’ve fixed a light, your broken top, toy van,
and gave me it trusting that yet again
I’d make all right. And found that wasn’t true,
there is no trick of screwdriver or glue
for growing things; but how could I explain?
Or now. Since mad October's massive fall
whirling you over salt estranging sea.
Hail-scourged in dark yearns the stripped weeping tree
precarious greenness hints, and can't forestall.
FOR MY SON (excerpts)
Again May’s blossom foaming past,
indifferent to what since last
time round has exiled me from all
attunement to its seasonal
bag of tricks. A pavement tree
lopped back last winter helplessly
conjures from black stumps a dance
of fresh leaves; daisies take their chance
in galaxies; red blooms adorn
municipally tended lawn.
Each form unique, and rooted here.
Replaced by much the same next year.
New pushchairs trundle past the sea
here in your place, my son. Since she
revoked your birthright, all I’d share
with you squanders against my stare,
falling to ashes. You are gone.
Uselessly spring’s show goes on.
Drawn by it weather to this coast
families sprawl or stroll. A ghost
infiltrating, I retrace
old steps, as if once more your face
might bob past on the carousel.
One blink, all magically well
again. An empty horse glides round.
And round. And over there the sound
of laughter from the Slippery Dip.
Far out, incurious, a ship
pointing away from Ireland, buoyed
on a blue flux beneath blue void.
I walk again this curve of strand,
a shine of wet on firm gold sand
blanked by 500 tides since you
knelt watching Daddy as I drew
a little boy, inscribed your name:
RORY WAS HERE. Here looks the same:
dunes, headlands, ocean charged with light
as then, rippling to its long white
ribbon of foam, where bubbles break
in millions for each breath I take.
* * *
As fourteen days ago: again
a boat across to Scotland, then
the night-train dreaming southward to
ticking wheels, a shave at Crewe,
and halting curve through the spoiled heart
of England, as commuters start
their workday. Scented typists cram
the carriage into Nottingham,
spill dispersing; Lincolnshire
expands monotonously. Dear
child, lost to the sea-surge, light
on soaring headlands, wheeling flight
of gulls, Glenariff’s waterfalls.
I greet you within office walls
among the Welfare Service staff.
She sits and glowers, while you laugh
conjuring from a swivel-chair
‘a roundabout - Daddy sit there.’
All now depends upon the Court.
The Welfare Officer’s report
assesses your best interests
are served best if the Law invests
custody in me; although
she’'ll argue as the ‘status quo’
what she’s brought you to; presume
the ‘mother’s right’ must overcome.
Rory, all your future ought
to be pleads fate may not abort
its sunrises on mutual hopes,
cloth spread for three on picnic slopes
where insects thrum, your basic right
to childhood’s freedom and delight
beneath the overarching love
of parents intertwined above.
That world, like a baby seal
lifting its eyes in mute appeal
against the club, knows no redress;
and is crushed into wilderness.
I lift you to the windowsill
to watch the world go by, and thrill
as round my shoulder your small arm
curls gently. What’s done cannot harm
our bond, bright gold that will not rust
hooping our two souls in trust.
* * *
Art seeks to forge atoning sense
and shapeliness from violence
and hurt we may be powerless
in life to help. These lines confess
sheer impotence, as they complete
their formal pattern, to defeat
or solace discord which has ripped
you from your home and father, stripped
away known places, play and friends;
yet while it cannot make amends
for wrong endured, the poem sustains
truths life would void; by taking pains
composes our essential form,
inviolable through the storm.